A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bad News

The diocese of Allentown and the parish of Our Lady of Mercy have thrown in the towel on the possibility of raising the money needed to repair the main church building.  The church, formerly St. Joseph's, was closed two weeks ago and all operations were transferred to the oratory, formerly St. Bernard's.   

That the parish had two church buildings may seem odd.  However:
  • St. Joseph's was the largest of the church buildings and therefore was able to accommodate the three combined parishes. 
  • St. Bernard's was the oldest parish in this part of Pennsylvania, the "mother church" for all the rest, including St. Joseph's.
So there were practical and historico-sentimental reasons for keeping both in operation.  Now the large and liturgically rich church will be used only on Christmas and Easter and for Kirchweihe and the like.  Marriages and funerals will be done in it, if requested. 

A farewell to old St. Joseph

St. Joseph's formed up in 1852 when the Germans on the Lecha Anhoehe (Lehigh Heights) south of the river decided that it was too difficult to climb down the cliff on stairways, walk along the canal to the bridge, cross over to the north side and climb Gallows Hill, where St. Bernard's was.

The present building is the third church to have been built on that site, formerly called Mt. Tabor.  It is visible on the clifftop from virtually everywhere in town.  
My mother's mother.  In the back, my
mother's uncles are building the church
 Over the course of a century, the German content gradually was diluted.  When my mother brought me in to be baptized, Fr. Fries refused because my name was Flynn.  "Take him to St. Bernard's," he said.  "That's the Irish parish." 

Well, the Mut was 100% German and had the German stubbornness.  Her uncles had helped to build the church, and they could take it down the same way.  Either I would be baptized there or she would take me home and baptize me herself under the kitchen sink.  She would have done it, too.  So Fr. Fries gave in.  He was the last native-born German to be pastor of St. Joseph's and was a liturgist of world renown.  When the church building was refreshed for its 75th anniversary, he arranged the whole thing as a catechism, which we will note below. 

A brief overview

The first church on the site, 1852-1885
with rectory and convent/school.
The first church building was a simple frame church.  It was dedicated by the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, Bishop (now Saint) John Neumann. 

At the time it was built, the overwhelming majority of students in the Northampton County public schools spoke German only and most of the rest were bilingual.  (German was still a required course when my mother attended the parish school, and, when I asked her, could still say the Vater Unser in badly accented Deutsch.) 

For a while, Easton PA celebrated an annual parade and picnic called Schwabenfest to display the contributions of the Germans to the civic weal.  This included not only sausages and pretzels, but also beer.  At one time the city had three breweries; and there was a pretzel factory on my way home from school in which we would sometimes duck to acquire free scraps from the end of the baking line.  And of course scrapple is still served in most diners hereabouts.  Don't ask.  But we never had to wonder what nanotech people meant when they spoke of "gray goo." 

Second church, 1890-1911
When the first church was outgrown, a second one was built in the high style of the late 19th century. It was nearly twice the size of the first building. 

The interior was done up in what might be called 19th century baroque, with a statue for every occasion.

The church my mother's uncles built

Third church, dedicated in 1918.  View of Westwerk,
curiously on the east end of the building.
The second church was destroyed in a fire that my father's father could see from New Jersey.  The City immediately offered to let the parish use Porter School for church services.  It is impossible to imagine a governmental entity doing that today. 

But a new building was immediately planned and erected in four years.  First the school, then the church. 

The new church was constructed entirely of Stockton granite and was considered to be practically fire proofed.  It is 140.5 by 75 feet in size.  Instead of a single, pointed spire, it bears twin towers capped with terra cotta domes modeled on the Munich Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). 

Overall, it is a gothic-romanesque hybrid.  with a long barrel vault leading to a semi-domed apse.  The transcept is short and once held two side altars.  At the ends of the transcept are two rose windows, once with a triptych of the Nativity, the other with one of the Pentecost.  The stained glass windows are in the Gothic revival style of Munich glassmakers a century ago, featuring robust figures and containing symbolic elements.  In the nave, each window on the south side features an episode from the life of St. Joseph and on the north side various roles of St. Joseph.  In the choir loft, the two windows show David as the psalmist and Gregory the Great as in Gregorian chant.  The four windows in the sanctuary show four Old Testament prefigures of the Eucharist.

The arrangement of the sanctuary is deliberate.  In the photo below, start with the Eye in the dome and drop a vertical line.  The eye is God the Father.  On the front of the canopy (and thus "proceeding outward") is a dove representing the Spirit.  The canopy covers the Son on the cross.  The line then drops through a bas relief of the Last Supper, the Tabernacle, and the altar.  The theological point is hard to miss.  

Interior of third church after Fr. Fries remodeling. 
Speaking of crosses, there are two horizontal lines.  If you follow the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross, you find the windows depicting Eucharistic prefigures.  But a second horizontal line runs through the bas relief of the Last Supper.  Across the backdrop are iconographic depictions of the other six sacraments; and below these two circular mosaics: one depicting Eve and the apple, the other depicting Mary and an apple.  These symbolize the fall and the redemption.  These were mirrored by the twin pulpits, one with a medallion of St. Paul being struck on the road to Damascus and the other with Christ teaching a disciple.  In the old days, the epistle was read from one and the gospel from the other. 

Vatican II did surprisingly little harm to the symbolism.  The tabernacle was moved off to the right hand altar and the celebrant's chair was placed in-line.  This is apropos given his role in loco Christi, but to my way of thinking less satisfactory.  The Eye representing God the Father was removed later for unrelated reasons.  (Some children said it scared them.  The nuns in my day would have said, "Good.  Keep that in mind."  I was a kid once, but I just thought it was kool beans.)  However, a blank dome is also a satisfactory representation of a being who cannot really be depicted.  The dome has seven panels to represent creation.  There ought to have been a Michelangelo to paint each day across it. 

Post Vatican II. 

Photo gallery.

A 7-panel dome, a proceeding dove, and a saving victim opening wide,
followed by the Last Supper, the celebrant's chair, and the altar
Detail.  Note the pelican on the altar front.  Just barely visible above
the last supper bas-relief is a platform for the monstrance during expositions.
This also preserved the meaning of the vertical line.

Each sacrament is represented by an iconic figure: marriage, orders, extreme unction.
On the left of the central bas relief (not shown) are baptism, penance, and confirmation.

The snake offers an apple to Eve and she's thinking
What could possibly go wrong?

Another apple.  Notice this one is ripe.
(BTW, "aeppel" originally meant a generic fruit in English.)

The corbels for the arches of the barrel vault.

The barrel vault over the nave.  The arch
into the sanctuary is Egyptian style.

The Munich-made stained glass windows depict the life
of St. Joseph.  Here, the betrothal to Mary based on
a painting by Raphael. 

The Stations are high-relief, "emergent properties,"
somewhat like medieval sculpture, which often
emerged from the wall.


  1. Thanks for the post. Makes me blush to think how harshly we Europeans sometimes view people from over the Big Salt Water.
    My own hometown church dates back to the 13th century, so it's been renovated and rebuilt times immemorable. One of the best things about it are the hollows worn out in the brick floor by centuries of kneeling faithful. Sadly, though, owing to damage from wear and modern traffic, it has to be renovated, but the costs by far exceed the means of the local parish ...

  2. If anyone is interested, here's a new reading list for Pro-Western Christianity:

    Please make recommendations in the comments below the reading list.


  3. How much did the parish need to raise?

    We all know that you've been doing your part passing the plate to us heathens.


  4. Dear TOF: I am deeply sorry for this loss. Please accept my condolences. Loss of a center for worship and community, loss of a church, is one of the saddest things I have ever experienced.

  5. Dear TOF: I, too, am deeply saddened by the loss. Thank you for your contributions in this post, and beyond, in helping to mitigate these losses to our culture and the Faith. From a majority to a minority to a remnant: It can make one tend towards despondency. Nonetheless, your fine works are worth my meager contributions despite the loss.


Whoa, What's This?

adam amateur theology anthropology aphorisms Aquinas argument from motion Aristotelianism art atheism autumn of the modern ages books brains breaking news captive dreams cartoon charts chieftain clannafhloinn comix commentary counterattack crusades culcha dogheads easton stuff economics eifelheim evolution factoids on parade fake news fallen angels Feeders fir trees in lungs firestar flicks floods flynncestry flynnstuff forecasts forest of time fun facts gandersauce gimlet eye global warming glvwg headlines henchmen high frontier history home front how to lie with statistics humor Hunters Moon hush-hush hypatia in the house of submission irish Iron Shirts irrationalism january dancer jihad journeyman kabuki kool letter lion's mouth lunacon maps mayerling medieval metrology miscellany modern mythology moose zombies music new years nexus odds odds and ends paleofuture passing of the modern age philosophy philosophy math poetry politics potpourri psyched out! public service quality quiet sun quote of the day razor's edge redefinition of marriage religio reviews river of stars scandal science science marches on scientism scrivening shipwrecks of time shroud skiffy skiffy in the news skools slipping masks some people will believe anything stats stories stranger things the auld curmudgeon the madness continues the new fascism the russians are coming the spiral arm the writing life thomism thought for the day thread o' years tofspot topology untergang des abendlandes untergang des morgenlandes up jim river video clips vignettes war on science we get letters we're all gonna die whimsy words at play wuv xmas you can't make this stuff up